Commentary on US Energy Policy

A change-up from my normal sports writing, I felt that a piece on energy policy, from the perspective of an electrical engineer, may be well received.

On any large public college campus in the U.S., one can quite easily find at least one student or activist group that progressively opposes coal power or the use of fossil fuels. Rarely will one find on that campus a group promoting the use of such energy resources since they have connotations of pollution, ill-health, or climate change. In a sense, what these renewable energy groups are actually promoting is somewhat admirable to advocate the cutting edge in energy technology. Unfortunately, it is these same groups that usually lack one major quality (or one college “major”)—a concept of technological and electrical reality.

Not to harp too much on these groups, but they are usually the ones who have very few members with science backgrounds and many with political backgrounds. In my line of work, most engineers see policy makers in a similar light as those of clueless upper management because of their lack of knowledge of what is possible and what is impossible.

If it were feasible and physically possible to power all of the United States on renewable energy, I would bet that it would already be happening. Some may argue by stating that our treaties with the Middle East would force us to remain on oil and that companies like Exxon would use legislation to ensure it makes a profit. I can assure everyone that as long as the U.S. remains capitalistic, companies like Exxon or BP will have to find other means of generating revenue other than just oil. Why?

If technology information is allowed to be accessible like it currently is, and not squelched by political policy, there will always be companies looking to get ahead in profits by releasing that next technological platform. Any device or invention that lowers energy losses, generates more power more efficiently, or uses algorithmic design to optimize an existing system, you can bet that every technological company or research firm is trying to design that new technology. There is no government interference here—just the capitalism of ideas and knowledge.

As a side note, many of the same renewable energy activist groups have members that share political views of a strong socialized government, one that would restrict such a free-flow of technology. Please, keep this in mind.

So why the desire to keep drilling for oil, coal, and natural gas?

New technological advances are not an overnight type of realization. As Americans, we become spoiled on the “latest and greatest” of technology with rapid releases of new computers, tablets, smart phones, and… well just about everything else, really. Everything, including energy. For example, battery life on one generation of smart phone may be about one day of normal use. The next generation of that particular smart phone may have third generation battery in it, and its life is extended to over four days under the same use. Moore’s law (a typical measure of transistor buildup and computing strength over time) does not even follow that sharp of an increase!

In truth, that smart phone upgraded not only battery technology but also operating system efficiency and power management optimization. To see a radical, or even barely noticeable, change in any technology from generation to generation, multiple factors must be optimized and refined. Even if a 2nd generation battery has 2x the battery life, the net result in that phone would probably not be double its original battery life because of operating inefficiencies of the phone itself.

We can apply this phone analogy quite easily to U.S. energy policy.

For this discussion, I will consider solar and wind power.

Every day, new technologies yield more efficient solar cells and wind turbines. Unfortunately, these devices are still reliant on ever-changing weather patterns and an outdated energy grid. Essentially, like the battery and the phone, no matter how energy efficient we can realistically get our cells or turbines to be, there is still tremendous energy losses in the power system we currently have in the U.S. For any significant power efficiency changes to occur on the U.S. grid, we will require better transmission lines (for less power loss), a more optimized smart grid (to manage power supplies/demands), and, most difficultly, a means of storing energy on the grid.

Luckily, there is hope. Power Systems is an ever-growing field of electrical development in companies and research. Semiconductor and ceramic materials development for super-conducting transmission lines is also a very in-demand technology. Many of these factors are improving as we speak.

So where do fossil fuels fit into this?

Since the technologies mentioned above are not prominent enough to allow most renewable energies to dominate, there is still a need for inexpensive fossil fuels. For those who hate these, think of fossil fuels as the money one pays into a 401k: this money you won’t be able to see for a while, but it will pay off dividends when you can finally use it. For fossil fuels, these generate the power necessary to run super computers that optimize smart-grid algorithms. These fuels allow engineers, managers, and researchers to get to work in a timely fashion so they can spend their days perfecting better conducting materials.

Yes, one day these fuels will be a thing of the past for energy generation. Someday soon. But for now, they still serve a vital role in the development of renewable energy for U.S. power.